February 2018

In Monthly Book Selection on January 9, 2018 at 12:23 pm


From a former marine and Yale Law School graduate, a powerful account of growing up in a poor Rust Belt town that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class

Hillbilly Elegy is a passionate and personal analysis of a culture in crisis—that of white working-class Americans. The decline of this group, a demographic of our country that has been slowly disintegrating over forty years, has been reported on with growing frequency and alarm, but has never before been written about as searingly from the inside. J. D. Vance tells the true story of what a social, regional, and class decline feels like when you were born with it hung around your neck.

The Vance family story begins hopefully in postwar America. J. D.’s grandparents were “dirt poor and in love,” and moved north from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to Ohio in the hopes of escaping the dreadful poverty around them. They raised a middle-class family, and eventually their grandchild (the author) would graduate from Yale Law School, a conventional marker of their success in achieving generational upward mobility.

But as the family saga of Hillbilly Elegy plays out, we learn that this is only the short, superficial version. Vance’s grandparents, aunt, uncle, sister, and, most of all, his mother, struggled profoundly with the demands of their new middle-class life, and were never able to fully escape the legacy of abuse, alcoholism, poverty, and trauma so characteristic of their part of America. Vance piercingly shows how he himself still carries around the demons of their chaotic family history.

A deeply moving memoir with its share of humor and vividly colorful figures, Hillbilly Elegy is the story of how upward mobility really feels. And it is an urgent and troubling meditation on the loss of the American dream for a large segment of this country.


March 2018

In Monthly Book Selection on January 9, 2018 at 12:21 pm

when the state meets the street

When the State Meets the Street probes the complex moral lives of street-level bureaucrats: the frontline social and welfare workers, police officers, and educators who represent government’s human face to ordinary citizens. Too often dismissed as soulless operators, these workers wield a significant margin of discretion and make decisions that profoundly affect people’s lives. Combining insights from political theory with his own ethnographic fieldwork as a receptionist in an urban antipoverty agency, Bernardo Zacka shows us firsthand the predicament in which these public servants are entangled.

Public policy consists of rules and regulations, but its implementation depends on how street-level bureaucrats interpret them and exercise discretionary judgment. These workers are expected to act as sensible moral agents in a working environment that is notoriously challenging and that conspires against them. Confronted by the pressures of everyday work, they often and unknowingly settle for one of several reductive conceptions of their responsibilities, each by itself pathological in the face of a complex, messy reality. Zacka examines the factors that contribute to this erosion of moral sensibility and what it takes to remain a balanced moral agent in such difficult conditions.

Zacka’s revisionary portrait reveals bureaucratic life as more fluid and ethically fraught than most citizens realize. It invites us to approach the political theory of the democratic state from the bottom-up, thinking not just about what policies the state should adopt but also about how it ought to interact with citizens when implementing these policies.

April 2018

In Monthly Book Selection on January 8, 2018 at 12:24 pm


From the celebrated neurobiologist and primatologist, a landmark, genre-defining examination of human behavior, both good and bad, and an answer to the question: Why do we do the things we do?

Sapolsky’s storytelling concept is delightful but it also has a powerful intrinsic logic: he starts by looking at the factors that bear on a person’s reaction in the precise moment a behavior occurs, and then hops back in time from there, in stages, ultimately ending up at the deep history of our species and its evolutionary legacy.

And so the first category of explanation is the neurobiological one. A behavior occurs–whether an example of humans at our best, worst, or somewhere in between. What went on in a person’s brain a second before the behavior happened? Then Sapolsky pulls out to a slightly larger field of vision, a little earlier in time: What sight, sound, or smell caused the nervous system to produce that behavior? And then, what hormones acted hours to days earlier to change how responsive that individual is to the stimuli that triggered the nervous system? By now he has increased our field of vision so that we are thinking about neurobiology and the sensory world of our environment and endocrinology in trying to explain what happened.

Sapolsky keeps going: How was that behavior influenced by structural changes in the nervous system over the preceding months, by that person’s adolescence, childhood, fetal life, and then back to his or her genetic makeup? Finally, he expands the view to encompass factors larger than one individual. How did culture shape that individual’s group, what ecological factors millennia old formed that culture? And on and on, back to evolutionary factors millions of years old.

The result is one of the most dazzling tours d’horizon of the science of human behavior ever attempted, a majestic synthesis that harvests cutting-edge research across a range of disciplines to provide a subtle and nuanced perspective on why we ultimately do the things we do…for good and for ill. Sapolsky builds on this understanding to wrestle with some of our deepest and thorniest questions relating to tribalism and xenophobia, hierarchy and competition, morality and free will, and war and peace. Wise, humane, often very funny, Behave is a towering achievement, powerfully humanizing, and downright heroic in its own right.